At only 35, Darrel Young, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ new director of player development, has already achieved several of his career goals in the NFL.
After having a successful playing career with the Washington Redskins, Young transitioned to an off-the-field role in the NFL commissioner’s office, working in the league’s center of power for more than three years. Then in May, Young accepted a key position with the Steelers, one of the league’s most successful franchises.
Before his career ends, the self-described NFL “lifer” is determined to take many more major steps. And the fact is, top NFL leaders are hopeful that Young and those like him – the league’s young, highly qualified employees from various racial and ethnic backgrounds – will continue to rise.
As powerful league decision-makers continue their major push to address the inclusive hiring crisis at the franchise level, Young, who is Black, is among the NFL’s employees who eventually could benefit if officials’ rhetoric about improving diversity in the workplace ever matches their actions. In coaching and both in football and business operations leadership, officials acknowledge the NFL has fallen woefully short in creating diverse workplaces.
Young aspires to occupy a general manager’s office one day, and he’s aware of the challenges faced by Black NFL employees who are eager to climb ladders. But Young says he won’t be deterred, and he wants to help spur positive change.
“I’m not ignorant,” Young said on the phone last week from Steelers training camp at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania.
“I know that there are a lot of situations that are unfortunate out there, I know that [lack of diversity at the club level] … it’s a thing. But I also know all these organizations are looking for leaders. I know the work I put in, I know how I prepare, and I know I’m learning from the right people to eventually be the leader of an organization. I’m just going to continue to grow, so if there’s an opportunity to get there, where I ultimately want to be, I’ll be ready for it.”
From the moment he joined professional sports’ most successful and powerful league, Young has positioned himself well to seize opportunities.
As Pittsburgh’s director of player development, Young assists Steelers rookies as they transition into the NFL, and he serves as the club’s main point of contact with players on myriad issues affecting them on and off the field. He creates programs designed to educate rookies about league policies, player benefits and resources, player expectations and social responsibility, and is a resource for players in need of help.
Young’s previous job provided a perfect launching pad for his current one.
In the league office, Young was a manager of engagement and player relations. He gained firsthand experience in addressing issues that confront players and was involved in implementing policies to help them maximize their NFL experience.
For his first six years in the league, the former standout at Villanova played fullback for Washington, helping the team win the 2012 NFC East title. Early on during his playing days, Young set a goal of becoming a general manager. To that end, he earned a master’s degree in sports industry management from Georgetown while working under Troy Vincent, the NFL’s executive vice president of football operations.
During his time in the league office, Young made a strong impression on Vincent.
“Darrel’s work in player engagement was no different than his playing days. He is loyal to the team, cares about his duties and is trustworthy,” Vincent wrote in a text message to Andscape. “Darrel was always ready and willing to put in the extra effort behind the scenes that allowed everyone else to shine. He’s the modern-day fullback in a golf shirt, leading by example and caring for the entire team.”
Seeking the experience of working for a team to help round out his résumé, Young left New York for Pittsburgh. He now counts not only Vincent, but Steelers coach Mike Tomlin among his mentors.
Entering his 16th season at Pittsburgh’s helm, Tomlin is one of only three Black NFL head coaches (Todd Bowles of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Lovie Smith of the Houston Texans are the others) and the dean of the group. It always bears repeating: The NFL is a 32-team league.
Over the previous five hiring cycles, there were 36 head-coaching openings. Only four Black men were hired to fill positions. In the hiring cycle completed before the most recent NFL scouting combine, white coaches were chosen for seven of the nine openings. Bowles’ unexpected promotion occurred after the cycle was believed to have been completed.
At the general manager level, the peak Young hopes to reach, the league can point to gains made in hiring.
In the most recent hiring cycle, the Chicago Bears tapped Ryan Poles, former executive director of player personnel for the Kansas City Chiefs, to be their new general manager. The Minnesota Vikings hired Kwesi Adofo-Mensah, former vice president of football operations for the Cleveland Browns, as their new general manager.
Three Black general managers were hired during the previous cycle: Terry Fontenot of the Falcons, Brad Holmes of the Detroit Lions and Martin Mayhew of the Commanders. The NFL now has seven Black general managers. However, it has never had more than seven. In 2020, Black or African American players accounted for 57.5% of those on NFL rosters. Although more than half of the league’s on-field workforce is Black, Black people are vastly underrepresented in NFL team leadership.
With the help of Tomlin, Young has devised a plan to keep climbing.
“Make no mistake – I love this player development job,” Young said. “I get to learn the players’ stories and assist them throughout the process of helping them get to where they’re going to go, helping them as young men. That’s my focus. I’m where I want to be and doing what I want to do. But I’ve sat down with Tomlin and created a … five- to 10-year plan. I’m in a good space with that.
“And I love this environment that I’m in. I can walk into any door [in the Steelers’ organization] to just ask questions and learn about the things I want to learn about to help me grow. I had that with Troy, and Tomlin and Troy are a lot alike, but I wanted to work for a team like the Steelers to see how the best organizations do things. I felt that was something I wanted, something I needed, and it doesn’t take long to realize why the Steelers have been so successful for so long. I’m getting a chance to learn from so many great teachers here.”
Besides Tomlin, Brian Flores is high on that list.
Formerly the head coach of the Miami Dolphins, Flores, Pittsburgh’s senior defensive assistant and linebackers coach, joined the Steelers shortly after he sued the NFL and three teams (the Dolphins, Denver Broncos and New York Giants), alleging discrimination regarding his interview process with Denver and New York and his firing by Miami. Flores is Afro Latino.
“You see things and you’re not oblivious to them, but you also know you have to put in the work and be ready,” Young said. “Mike T., Flores … those guys are great and I’m just learning everything I can. I’ll be ready.”
The question is, for Young and so many other well-qualified candidates eyeing future openings in coaching and administration at the franchise level, will the NFL one day be ready for them truly?